Vítězslav Novák (5 December 1870 – 18 July 1949) was one of the most respected Czech composers and pedagogues, almost singlehandedly founding a mid-century Czech school of composition.
Stylistically, he was a leading figure in the neoromantic movement, and his music has been occasionally considered an early example of Czech modernism.
Novák (baptized Viktor Novák) was born in Kamenice nad Lipou, a small town in Southern Bohemia. After the death of his father the family moved to Jindřichův Hradec, a larger town where an elementary school still bears his name.
In his late teens he moved to Prague to study at Prague Conservatory, changing his name to Vítězslav to identify more closely with his Czech identity, as many of his generation had already done. At the conservatory he studied piano and attended Antonín Dvořák’s masterclasses in composition where his fellow students included Josef Suk, Oskar Nedbal, and Rudolf Karel.
When Dvořák departed for his three-year sojourn in America (1892–1895), Novák continued his studies with the ultra-conservative Karel Stecker.
Novák would show his true colors, however, in the years shortly after graduation: just before and after 1900, he wrote a series of compositions that put distance between himself and the teachings of both Stecker and Dvořák, edging his style toward the fledgling modernist movement.
Beginning in the late 1890s, Novák began to explore influences beyond the prevailing Wagner/Brahms aesthetic of his contemporaries in Prague.
Among these were folk influences from Moravia and Slovakia, which at that time were considered culturally backward in the cosmopolitan Czech capital. He also developed an interest in what would come to be called musical Impressionism, although in later life he denied any exposure to the music of Debussy at this time, claiming instead to have arrived at similar techniques on his own. These included forays into bitonality and non-functional, parallel harmony.
Finally, after the Prague premiere of Salome in 1906, Novák formed an attachment to the music of Richard Strauss that would remain for the rest of his career. In many respects, Novák’s career would follow a similar path as that of Strauss, in his early quest for new modernist expression and subsequent withdrawal from leadership in the movement.
Shortly after the turn of the century, Novák began teaching composition privately in Prague. From 1909 to 1920, he taught at the Prague Conservatory himself, and this occasionally occupied him to a greater degree than composing. During the same period, several events of a more personal nature affected Novák’s outlook on musical expression and artistic freedom.
In the years 1901–1917, his apartment became the site of a discussion group known as the Podskalská filharmonie; while most of its members were musicians, including Suk, Karel, and the conductor Václav Talich, performances were confined to readings of new modernist works from abroad and the group’s goals were primarily intellectual. The Filharmonie served, however, as an important proving-ground for this budding circle of Czech modernists and their ideas; by regulation, its only female member was Marie Prášková, who became Novák’s wife in 1912.
This same year, Novák became embroiled in a series of culturo-political battles in Prague between his Conservatory-based faction and that of Zdeněk Nejedlý, a critic and musicologist at Prague University. When Novák signed a protest against Nejedlý’s anti-Dvořák propaganda, the critic turned his energies toward Novák’s own music, effectively with the intent of ruining the composer’s career: the effects of Nejedlý’s hatred were long-lasting and ushered in a crisis in Novák’s creative life.
Upon independence of Czechoslovakia in 1918, Novák turned toward a less personal manner of involvement in Prague musical life: the administration of culture in the new democratic regime. In this capacity, he led the push toward de-Germanification and nationalization of the Conservatory, during which process his German-Bohemian colleagues, including Alexander Zemlinsky and Paul Nettl, were forced out to form their own segregated institution.
Novák became the new administrative head of the Czech-only institution and held various titles, alternating with Suk and others, until his retirement. During this period he continued to teach composition in the form of masterclasses, thereby influencing a new interwar generation of musicians, despite the increasing conservatism of his compositions in the 1920s.
In the 1930s, Novák enjoyed a period of artistic renewal with the premieres of some large-scale compositions. After the collapse of democracy and the ensuing Nazi protectorate in 1939, the retired professor gained considerable credibility among his younger Czech contemporaries through the performance of several patriotic and morale-boosting works, meant as a musical form of resistance.
After the Second World War, he devoted himself to a lengthy memoir, entitled O sobě a jiných (Of Myself and Others, publ. 1970), in which he aired many of his long-standing grudges, especially toward his main rival, Otakar Ostrčil and even his close friend Josef Suk. He died in Skuteč in Eastern Bohemia, where he had spent much of his last years.